Monthly Archives: February 2017

“Red Flag confirmed F-35 dominance with a 20:1 kill ratio” U.S. Air Force says

Looks like the F-35 achieved an impressive 20:1 kill ratio at Nellis Air Force Base’s Red Flag 17-1

Every aviation enthusiast knows about Red Flag, the large-scale aerial combat training exercises held four times per year at Nevada’s Nellis AFB just north of Las Vegas.

The historical highlight of the recent Red Flag 17-1 was the very first inclusion of the U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II in the exercise. F-35As of the 388th and 419th Fighter Wing at Hill AFB, Utah, launched large multi-aircraft sorties during Red Flag 17-1.

Three words summarize the role of the F-35A during this Red Flag exercise; stealth, integration and flexibility. To a greater degree than any previous aircraft in U.S. Air Force history the F-35A Lightning IIs from Hill AFB acted as sensors, guidance platforms and strike assets almost simultaneously, and they did so in a threat environment that would have been previously impenetrable without significantly greater loses. They also performed in an air-to-air role: although we don’t know the ROE (Rules of Engagement) in place for the drills nor the exact role played by the F-22 Raptors that teamed up with the Lightning II throughout the exercise, the results achieved by the F-35, appear to be impressive, especially considering the 5th Gen. aircraft’s additional tasking during RF.

Indeed, while early reports suggested a 15-1 kill ratio recent Air Force testimony by Lt. Gen. Jerry D. Harris, Vice Commander of Air Combat Command characterized the kill ratio as “20-1” meaning that, for one F-35A “lost” in simulated combat in a high threat environment that the aircraft destroyed 20 simulated enemy aircraft.

During the same testimony, U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. Jon M. Davis, Deputy Commandant for Aviation, related a 24-0 kill ratio for U.S. Marine F-35B aircraft during a different exercise.

Whereas the air superiority scenario has not been disclosed (therefore, the above mentioned kill ratio should be taken with a grain of salt, as always when it deals with mock air-to-air engagements…), other details of the F-35As specific missions during the exercise are beginning to emerge from Red Flag 17-1.

The recently revealed reports suggest that large-scale F-35A strikes were conducted in a highly contested/denied aerial environment. Air Force F-35As penetrated denied airspace and directed standoff weapons from B-1B heavy bombers flying outside the denied airspace. Those strikes destroyed simulated surface to air weapons systems. This suggests some of the exercises were an example of a “first day of war” scenario where Air Force F-35As spearheaded an attack on a heavily defended target set both in the air and on the ground. The F-35As entered the denied airspace and engaged both aerial and ground targets, not only with weapons they carried but also with weapons launched from other platforms such as the B-1Bs as they loitered just outside the threat environment acting as “bomb trucks.”

USAF Capt. Tim Six, and F-35A pilots of the 388th Fighter Wing from Hill AFB, alluded to the “Sensor fusion both on-board, and off-board the aircraft” when he discussed the F-35A’s expanding envelope of strike and inter-operable capabilities.

This demonstration of F-35A capabilities counters an ongoing trend in the development of air defense networks for potential western adversaries. To a much greater degree than the F-117A Nighthawk defined the opening hours of the first Gulf War by penetrating Iraqi Air defenses and striking strategic targets with precision and stealth the F-35A expanded on that strike capability during this Red Flag according to the flying branch’s post-exercise statements.

At Red Flag 17-1 the F-35A also included additional roles previously reserved for air superiority aircraft like the F-15C Eagle and heavy strike capability from large bombers while even performing “light AWACS” duties.

“I flew a mission where our four-ship formation of F-35A’s destroyed five surface-to-air threats in a 15-minute period without being targeted once,” Major James Schmidt, an F-35A pilot for the 388th Fighter Wing from Hill AFB told the Air Force Times.

“After almost every mission, we shake our heads and smile, saying ‘We can’t believe we just did that’ Schmidt told reporters.

Major Schmidt went on to highlight the multirole capability of the F-35A in a non-permissive environment when he recalled, “After taking out the ground threats the multirole F-35A is able to pitch back into the fight with air-to-air missiles, taking out aircraft that don’t even know we’re there.”

Another addition to media coming from Red Flag 17-1 is this beautifully done extended video from our friends at Airshow Stuff shows a remarkable array of combat aircraft arriving and departing for air combat exercises. There are B-1B Lancers, F-22 Raptors, EA-18G Growlers, F-16 Aggressors based at Nellis, RAF Typhoons, Australian E-7A Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft, an Aussie C-130J Hercules transport.

At the 18:51 point in the video we get a ride in a KC-135 tanker for an approach straight into Nellis and a look at what flying into the busy base is like.

Another interesting political implication of Red Flag 17-1 is the inclusion of the Royal Australian Air Force. Although RAAF takes part to RF exercises every now and then, this may suggest an increased tempo of integrating new U.S. assets with other air forces in the Pacific region, possibly as a pro-active response to increased North Korean threats in that region.

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Russia to start building its next generation flying wing stealth bomber to replace the Tu-22, Tu-95 and Tu-160 aircraft

About four years ago, Russia’s next generation stealth bomber’s conceptual design was given the official approval. Now it looks like there is a go ahead to build the new aircraft.

Developed by the Tupolev Design Bureau since 2009, PAK DA (Advanced Long-Range Aviation Complex) is the new bomber that Russia plans to field starting in 2023 to replace Moscow’s aging fleet of Tu-95 Bear, Tu-22M3 Backfire and Tu-160 Blackjack bombers.

According to the latest update by the state-run Sputnik news media outlet, the new strategic bomber is expected to make its first flight sometime before 2021, with the first deliveries starting a couple of years later even though this seems to be rather optimistic, considered that back in 2013, the plan was for the PAK DA to enter production stage by 2020 with the first bomber in active service by 2025-2030 timeframe.

Anyway, the stealth bomber will be a flying wing design and subsonic: unlike the American X-51, Falcon HTV-2 and other hypersonic development programs on which U.S.’s perspective strike capability could be based, the new Russian bomber will not even be supersonic. The loss in speed will be compensated with advanced stealth, electronic capabilities and an artificial intelligence-guided missile.

“It is impossible to build a missile-carrying bomber invisible to radars and supersonic at the same time. This is why focus is placed on stealth capabilities. The PAK DA will carry AI-guided missiles with a range of up to 7,000 km. Such a missile can analyze the aerial and radio-radar situation and determine its direction, altitude and speed. We’re already working on such missiles,” Russian Aerospace Forces Commander Viktor Bondarev was quoted as saying by the Russian newspaper Rossiskaya Gazeta.

The Russian flying-wing will be capable of carrying air-to-surface and air-to-air missiles as well as conventional and smart-guided bombs. A 2016 report mentioned that the PAK DA was expected to have a range of 6,740 nautical miles. It will also be able to carry 30 tons of weapons.

An unmanned “sixth-generation” strategic bomber based on the PAK-DA that could come around 2040-2050 was also rumored years ago and, based on last year’s statements, Russia has already started working on both 6th and 7th Gen. combat planes.

Still, whether Moscow will be able to operate the new stealthy bomber (and/or a next generation radar-evading 6th or 7th generation tactical plane) in the near/medium future is hard to say.

The optimistic claims surrounding the abilities of the new aircraft types being developed, their sensors and weapons will have to be backed by facts: indeed, unlike the U.S., that have been operating 5th Gen. aircraft (the F-22 and, with more difficulties, the controversial and troubled F-35), stealth aircraft and active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars for years, so far, Russia has not been able to operate a next generation stealth aircraft nor AESA radar system (both ones are still at the testing stage).

Let’s not forget that the 5th generation T-50 PAK-FA has yet to be formally inducted into active service by the Russian Aerospace Forces. Furthermore,  all the most futuristic programs (including the already mentioned F-35) have proved to be subject to various development issues, cost overruns and delays.

As already explained here in the past, Sukhoi might base its 6th Gen. on the PAK-FA and upgrade the design throughout the years similarly to what they have done with the Su-27 and subsequent supermaneuverable Flanker variants up to the Su-35S.

This means that the PAK-FA will probably become a 5++ Gen. thanks to the planned upgrades and be the base for Russia’s 6th Gen. fighter sometime in the future.

Meanwhile, let’s wait for the PAK-DA that seems to be pretty cool based on the concept art you can find on the Internet.

Beware, top image shows PAK-DA concept (credit: militaryrussia.ru via Sputnik News). The artwork can’t be considered an official image and it may not depict the plane as it is intended to be.

French Aerobatic Team Patrouille de France Announces Official U.S. Schedule

World’s Oldest Aerobatic Team to Fly 9 Full Demos Plus Flyovers in USA.

The world’s oldest aerobatic demonstration team, the French Patrouille de France, has announced their official flight demonstration calendar for their first ever U.S. tour. The team has scheduled 9 full airshow flight demonstrations in the United States plus a number of arrival/departure, fly-by and special events.

Patrouille de France began flying in 1931 using an early radial engine, high wing monoplane, the Morane-Saulnier MS-230. The MS-230 was an exceptional aircraft for the time and one of the first tandem cockpit single engine monoplanes, paving the way for modern tactical aircraft. It was an ideal demonstration aircraft then operated by French military flight instructors at early airshows.

The team disbanded as a result of WWII but reformed in 1954 and began operating the U.S. built Republic F-84, also flown by the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. The team went on to fly the indigenous French built Dassault Ouragon, the Dassault Mystere IV, the Fouga Magister and finally their current aircraft, the nimble and pretty Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jet light attack and advanced trainer twin-engine two-seat jet.

Patrouille de France will fly a unique demonstration for U.S. airshow fans since the team operates a large formation of eight Alpha Jets compared to only six demonstration aircraft by U.S. jet teams the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds. Some opposing maneuvers in their routine similar to U.S. team “knife edge” solo passes use four opposing aircraft instead of two making for a sensational photo opportunity.

According to AirShowStuff.com this is the United States demo schedule for Patrouille de France in 2017:

2017 North American Tour Appearance Schedule – Patrouille de France

March 19th: Arrive Bagotville, QC
March 25th: Statue of Liberty Flyby, New York
March 27th: Washington DC flyby and reception with French Ambassador
April 1st and 2nd: Melbourne Air Show, FL
April 4th: Sun-n-Fun Airshow, Lakeland, FL
April 5th and 6th: Commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of US entry into WW1, Kansas City, MO
April 7th-9th: Maxwell AFB Airshow, AL
April 10th-12th: Visit w/USN Blue Angels at NAS Pensacola, FL
April 12th: Flyby over Trescal Factory, Dallas, TX
April 12th: Refueling in Santa Fe, NM
April 13th: Grand Canyon, AZ Flyby/photoshoot
April 13th-16th: California Capitol Airshow, Sacramento & Golden Gate Bridge Flyby in San Francisco, CA
April 17th-18th: Visit w/USAF Thunderbirds at Nellis AFB, NV
April 19th: Refueling at Peterson AFB and USAF Academy Flyby, CO
April 19th: Refueling at Scott AFB, IL
April 20th-21st: VIP Event at Langley AFB, VA
April 22nd-23rd: Airshow at Stewart ANG Base, NY
April 28th-29th: NATO Tattoo in Norfolk, VA
April 30th: Wings Over Gatineau Airshow, Gatineau, QC
May 1st: Montreal, QC
May 2nd: Quebec City, QC
May 4th: Departure from Bagotville, QC

In celebration of the U.S. tour the demonstration aircraft will feature a special U.S. themed paint scheme recently unveiled on the official Patrouille de France Facebook page. The scheme features a new tail livery with stars and stripes.

Image credit: Patrouille de France

 

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Polish F-16s prepare to take part in NATO Baltic Air Patrol mission for the very first time

Poland is about to support the air policing mission over the Baltic States.

The Polish Air Force is to commit some of its F-16 jets to the NATO BAP (Baltic Air Policing) operation beginning in May.

This is going to be the first time long-term deployment to Lithuania for the Polish Vipers: so far, Poland has contributed to the mission with the venerable MiG-29 Fulcrum jets.

Pilots and soldiers of the 31st Airbase of Krzesiny (in the vicinity of Poznan) are going to be tasked with operating four F-16 airframes during the BAP mission. Furthermore, as Polska Zbrojna reports, the operation is going to have a very joint and expansive character, since the deployment is to include personnel of the Łask 32nd AB (which is the second base hosting the Polish Air Force’s Lockheed jets), navigators and air traffic controllers, weather specialists, Polish military Police, as well as intelligence and counterintelligence servicemen.

This is the first time that the Polish F-16 replaced the Soviet-era Fulcrums in the Baltic Air Policing task. A few years back, doubts were voiced, as to why the F-16 could not deployed in the Baltics, ranging from cost considerations, to FOD damage risk.

It seems that tape M6.5 update, recently implemented, was required to have the jets deployed.

It is interesting to notice a change in the Polish F-16’s engagement doctrine: along with operating in the “recce role” against ISIS in the Middle East, they will also support BAP from Lithuania.

If you want to find out more about the Polish F-16 aircraft, check out our feature article published last year.

The “Orlik” Deployment is going to be stationed at the BAP MOB (Main Operating Base) in Šiauliai. Intelligence and ATC officers and navigators are going to be stationed at the control and recce center of Karmelava.

The Polish rotation is going to last from May 1 to Aug. 31, with the Polish pilots of the Krzesiny AB carrying out the QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) and air policing duties. Deployment of the forces is going to begin in late April, and it is going to be preceded with “Orlik-17” exercise, planned in Poland.

This is the seventh Polish rotation in support of Baltic Air Policing operation, with the Poles now taking over the responsibilities from the Dutch RNlAF pilots flying the F-16 fighter aircraft, who have been on duty in Lithuania since Jan 5, 2017.

The first ever Polish deployment took place back in 2006. The mission has been carried out since 2004, when Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia asked NATO to provide air assets to protect their airspace.

Image Credit: Wojciech Mazurkiewicz

 

U.S. WC-135 nuclear sniffer airplane has left the UK heading towards Norway and the Barents Sea

The WC-135 Constant Phoenix has launched from RAF Mildenhall earlier today for a mission towards northern Europe and the Barents Sea. Interestingly, an RC-135W spyplane has launched from the same base on the same route. What’s their mission?

As you probably already know, on Feb. 17, 2017, U.S. Air Force WC-135C Constant Phoenix Nuclear explosion “sniffer,” serial number 62-3582, deployed to RAF Mildenhall, UK, using radio callsign “Cobra 55.”

Whereas it was not the first time the Constant Phoenix visited the British airbase, the deployment to the UK amidst growing concern about an alleged spike in iodine levels recorded in northern Europe fueled speculations that the WC-135 might be tasked with investigating the reason behind the released Iodine-131.

In fact, along with monitoring nuclear weapons testing, the WC-135 can be used to track radioactive activity, as happened after the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in the Soviet Union in 1986 and Fukushima incident back in 2011, by collecting particles and chemical substances in the atmosphere, days, weeks, or sometimes even month after they were dispersed.

Whilst the reason of the deployment has yet to be confirmed (actually, there are still contradictory reports about the spike in Iodine-131) the WC-135 has departed for its first mission since it arrived at Mildenhall: on Feb. 22, at around 11.50LT, the nuclear “sniffer” aircraft has departed for a mission towards Norway and the Barents Sea.

The WC-135C (radio callsign “Flory 58”) was supported by two KC-135 tankers (“Quid 524” and “525”)suggesting it had just started a very long mission and somehow accompanied, along the same route, by an RC-135W (“Pulpy 81”) and another Stratotanker (“Quid 513”).

It’s hard to guess the type of mission this quite unusual “package” has embarked on: investigating the alleged iodine spike? Collecting intelligence on some Russian nuclear activity? Something else?

Hard to say.

For sure, once the aircraft reached Aberdeen, eastern Scotland, they turned off their transponder becoming invisible to the flight tracking websites such as Flightradar24.com or Global.adsbexchange.com that use ADS-B, Mode S and MLAT technologies to monitor flights: a sign they were going operational and didn’t want to be tracked online.

H/T to @CivMilAir for the heads up and details